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Pump Boys and Dinettes

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Pump Boys and Dinettes
Randy Redd, Jordan Dean, Katie Thompson, Hunter Foster, and Mamie Parris .
Photo by Joan Marcus

Fluffy is not always a bad thing. When applied to the ultimate diner omelette, for example, it may just be the ideal: a sky-high tower of perfectly whipped eggs enveloping chunks of smoky ham, gooey cheese, and crisp peppers. Of course, in that particular case some nutrition is imparted once you sink in your teeth. That's something I'm not entirely sure is true with Pump Boys and Dinettes, perhaps the quintessential example of musical-theatre fluff from the last four decades, and which is playing through this weekend at City Center as part of the Encores! Off-Center series.

In fact, judging strictly by Lear deBessonet's production of the 1981 musical (it transferred to Broadway early the following year), it's not always easy to see the virtues inherent in this this fluff. Set in the Double Cupp Diner, a roadside dive across the street from a gas station in Frog Level, South Carolina, it's little more than a revue that trades on the down-home hospitality and aw-shucks good feelings of the Say-outh, something that's been done more or less to death in the ensuing decades.

The songs pay tribute to America's underappreciated byways, lazy-days relationships, family ties, drinking, Dolly Parton, and of course the culinary offerings of the Double Cupp itself. And, though terrifyingly inconsequential, like the regional cuisine they go down super-easy and more than satisfy until you think too much about what you've consumed but with 20 songs packed into a 95 minutes, with an intermission, you won't have much time to put your brain (or, for that matter, your heart) to work.

So I'm perfectly happy to go to bat for the score, an elegantly inelegant combination of soft rock, country, rockabilly, and other basic forms that are sufficiently organic given the circumstances. And if many of the numbers more than teeter on the border of the forgettable, a couple of standouts (most notably the introductory "Highway 57," the second-act opener "Pump Boys," and the insinuating "No Holds Barred," the last of which captures the prevailing lyrical and thematic aesthetic better than any other composition here: "And if the weather is hell / We'll hang around the motel / Makin' love and watchin' color TV." Why not?

Certainly, deBessonet's staging, though lean, is effective. Donyale Werle's gloriously cramped set captures the messily organized atmosphere, with walls loaded with memorabilia and mirrors and neon, and costume designer Clint Ramos is right in tune with the area and its people as well. Only Mark Barton seems to want to do too much, his dazzlingly colorful and overactive lighting designs more appropriate for a rock concert than this particular show.

The biggest difficulty is with the performers. Pump Boys and Dinettes's most distinctive feature is actually the complex relationship between its original cast, composers, and musicians: They were all the same people. Though Jim Wann led the writing chores, costars John Foley, Mark Hardwick, John Schimmel, Cass Morgan, and Debra Monk all contributed to the music and lyrics, then brought them to life playing guitar, bass, keyboard, or percussion (mostly cooking utensils) onstage.

No one else could replicate that level of intimacy, so one suspects that the inaugural production (which I did not see), was rife with color and detail that only those creators, in that specific situation, could provide, and thus that was the reason it ignited so many imaginations (relatively speaking) once upon a time. Star quality counts for a lot more than producers of many of today's cookie-cutter musicals would like to admit, and Morgan and Monk prove that yet today when they light up New York stages (which they do on a regular basis).

Without that extra zest, Pump Boys and Dinettes plays as less than the sum of its parts. The group deBessonet has assembled is a talented one: Hunter Foster, Jordan Dean, Randy Redd, Lorenzo Wolff, and Mamie Parris sing and twang terrifically, and extract from their numbers as much fun as they can. But with them, you're always aware of actors playing parts from the outside in, not unique personalities appearing from the inside out. And because the score is nothing more than a series of star turns, anything that makes them seem lower-wattage than they already are makes it difficult to accept the conceit that's necessary to have more than just a basic good time.

Only the sixth main cast member, Katie Thompson, unearths the bone-deep playfulness, the hint of longing, and the grits-scented sensuality needed to make Rhetta Cup into a real, recognizable woman. When she sings about the virtue of "Tips," her complicated love for her "Sister," or her need for a "Vacation," genuine emotions emerge as they do nowhere else. And her "Be Good or Be Gone" evinces the sense of but isn't choked with the tangible desperation that gives all the best musical ultimatums their heft. (And did I mention that her splits are killer?)

So compelling is Thompson that you'll want to sample Rhetta's wares at any and every opportunity, and you're positive you'll be fulfilled for your trouble. For everything else in Pump Boys and Dinettes, one evening of completely empty calories, tasty as they may be, is considerably more than enough.


Encores! Off-Center
Pump Boys and Dinettes
Through July 19
New York City Center's Mainstage, 55th Street between 6th and 7th Avenues
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: nycitycenter.org